Six current and former executives from The Irish Times, Independent News & Media and RTÉ went before the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry yesterday.
The 17th, 18th and 19th hearings of this investigation into the financial collapse in Ireland was designed to shine a spotlight on the relationship between property advertising and the media’s coverage of the boom years.
Geraldine Kennedy, a former editor of The Irish Times whose evidence lasted 2½ hours, appeared before the committee alongside her former colleague Maeve Donovan, who retired as managing director of The Irish Times in 2010 after a 33-year career.
Also appearing were former Irish Independent editor Gerry O'Regan and ex-RTÉ head of news and current affairs Ed Mulhall.
Senator Seán Barrett, a senior economics lecturer in Trinity College, asked Kennedy if journalists had been better trained might they have spotted the warning signals leading up the crash in 2008.
She replied to the effect that if the large cadre of esteemed economists such as himself – David McWilliams and Morgan Kelly were given honourable exclusions – hadn't spotted the impending crash, "how could I train a journalist to spot it"?
Powers of prediction
Earlier, she had completely flummoxed Barrett by asking him if he himself had predicted the crash, during an exchange on the issue. He eventually mumbled something to the effect that he probably had.
Kennedy told the inquiry that she constantly got complaints from the government and the opposition about articles that appeared in The Irish Times.
"Sinn Féin were great at it," she said to chuckles around the table. "The Green Party were great at it too. They all do it." She would listen to the criticism but then do her own thing anyway. "I wasn't bullied by Charlie Haughey when I was in my 20s so I wasn't going to be bullied by lesser politicians in my 50s," she said.
Kennedy took exception to the notion that The Irish Times had never written about affordable housing in the boom years. She cited 10 editorials on the topic and cited how Garret FitzGerald, Fintan O'Toole and former union leader and politician Des Geraghty had penned pieces on the issue.
And if the newspaper hadn’t done a decent job in reporting the financial crisis, why then were former finance correspondent Simon Carswell and ex-environment editor Frank McDonald recently called to give expert evidence by the inquiry?
Value of hindsight
Kennedy, O’Regan and Mulhall all said they had never been pressurised from above in relation to editorial coverage in the period 2002 to 2007. Kennedy and O’Regan said that, with hindsight, they can now see the problems that existed in the banking and property markets but it wasn’t obvious at the time.
O'Regan cited how he had recruited economist McWilliams, who went on to write a series of articles questioning the Celtic Tiger economy. But O'Regan sidestepped a question on whether there were more cheerleaders for the boom than contrarians at the Irish Independent during his period as editor.
Mulhall gave a robust defence of RTÉ’s coverage of the boom and bust, citing various programmes as evidence. At peak, property was just 0.9 per cent of RTÉ’s total revenue, the committee was told.
Towards the end, Kennedy had a cut at Denis O'Brien. She said journalist Sam Smyth told her that O'Brien had stifled his coverage for Independent News & Media of the Mahon tribunal on planning corruption.
And she told the committee how she had rejected two ads that O'Brien had wanted to run in The Irish Times that were critical of the tribunal.
“It must be clear to the reader whose ad it is,” and there was no attribution on either, she said.
The evidence of Kennedy and Donovan ended with a philosophical debate about what constitutes news in terms of property coverage. Fine Gael’s
argued that it’s hardly news to write that a particular property might have a “lovely view over Dalkey Bay”.
“No but it is if it’s owned by Bo-no or Bon-o, whatever you call him,” was Kennedy’s quick-as-a-flash response to titters of laughter.
Charlie Haughey never stood a chance.